Symphony in Black

by Betty Hallock
Los Angeles Times - March 1, 2006

A little black seed is taking the pastry world by storm.
Black sesame seeds -- earthy and nutty, distinctively bitter, with a smoky, peppery flavor -- are appearing in tuiles and "macaroons," ice creams and eclairs, cakes and panna cottas and doughnuts. And this is no mere trendy garnish. "It's a staple," says Johnny Iuzzini, pastry chef at Jean Georges in New York. "It isn't overly sweet or cloying so it helps maintain the integrity of other ingredients in a dessert." Iuzzini uses black sesame seeds in the ganache for his chocolates. Other New York and Los Angeles chefs are using them in ice cream and crème brulee; at the new Pâtisserie Chantilly in Lomita, Keiko Nojima is featuring them in cream puffs and atop white sesame blancmange, a cooked pudding.

At El Bulli, north of Barcelona, Spain, pastry chef Albert Adria has fallen for the seeds. He has fashioned a spiral swirl of black sesame crunch, dehydrated raspberries and lime gelatin, with a quenelle of coconut ice cream. Another dessert, "gran creu negra", an outsize cross of smeared black sesame paste with chocolate-lime sorbet and chocolate cake, is Adria's homage to abstract-expressionist Catalan painter Antoni Tapies.

At all-dessert restaurant Espai Sucre in Barcelona, chef Jordi Butron is known for a lapsang souchong tea cream with chocolate cake, black sesame tuile and yogurt.

Even in Paris, black sesame seeds are making a showing. At Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki, the black sesame macaroons and black sesame eclairs are among the popular pastries, says spokeswoman Sandra Bourdier.

They've long been a traditional ingredient in Asian sweets. So what is it about the little seeds that's now captivating Western chefs?

"It reminds me of toasted sunflower seeds that I ate in my childhood that in Spain are colloquially called 'pipas,' " says Adria, brother and partner of chef Ferran Adria.

Black sesame seeds may not be used as frequently as vanilla or cinnamon, but "it's a flavor that I keep coming back to," says Ron Mendoza, pastry chef at Sona in West Hollywood, Calif., who has black sesame ice cream and black sesame brittle on the menu.

Mendoza is experimenting with black sesame seeds in his Pacojet, a high-tech machine for making ice cream, sauces and purees. He says "with summer coming up," a black sesame caramel sauce might be "paired with fruits like peaches and nectarines."

As pastry chefs rethink dessert, a transition from sweet toward salty, sour, spicy and bitter is accelerating. Chefs are using vinegar, chiles, herbs, spices, "fleur de sel" and coarse black pepper in desserts.

At wd-50 in New York, pastry chef Sam Mason makes a black sesame ice cream with a pink grapefruit gelee, tarragon meringue and warm grapefruit confit.

Josh DeChellis, chef at Sumile and Jovia in New York, says black sesame when sweetened is "vaguely reminiscent of the flavor profile of bittersweet chocolate."

Inspired by the flavor, he came up with "black sesame dice," Japanese black sesame paste whisked into a sugar solution with lemon juice and gelatin. When set, it is cut into cubes, piled on a plate and served with raspberries or cherries. "I will never, ever, ever take it off the menu," he says.

In Los Angeles, for black sesame ice cream, sushi chef Ken Namba uses black sesame paste and black sesame seeds that he toasts, then grinds in a food processor as well as in a mortar and pestle, "for extra aroma. When you eat it, the smell of sesame should be strong."

American chefs have been using black sesame since the mid-1980s in sauces and to encrust fillets of meat and fish.

Chef Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York, has been incorporating black sesame into his menus since 1984. One of his signature dishes is a black sesame "cornet" of salmon tartare with creme fraiche. Keller has had a dessert of mango sorbet, yuzu-scented genoise, sesame nougatine and black sesame coulis on his menus.

Black sesame seeds tend to be more bitter and richer than their white counterparts. When roasted, as they often are, the bitter quality of black sesame is intensified. Pastry chefs are enthusiastic not only about their flavor but also their color. Mason of wd-50 infuses his ice cream with a superfine black sesame powder imported from Japan.

"It's fine like dust and it turns the ice cream a mad gray color," he says. "I love the battleship gray. It's gorgeous. It's super sexy."

The black sesame urge can be traced to Asia, where it is a common flavor in traditional Chinese and Japanese sweets. Chinese cuisine offers black sesame desserts, especially in dim sum. Black sesame seeds are sometimes used in Japanese sweets known as "wagashi." Middle Eastern and Central Asian sweets known as "halvah" are made with sesame seeds, too, but they are usually white. Aesthetically, the inspiration seems to be coming from the Far East.

El Bulli's Adria says he began incorporating black sesame into his desserts in 2004 after a trip to Japan, which is in the throes of a "sesame boom," according to industry insiders. Japan is the largest single importer of sesame seeds in the world.

There, traditional uses include "goma dofu," a sesame tofu, and wagashi. A new focus on the health benefits -- some proven, some not -- of sesame seeds and "black foods" (black soybeans, black rice, Chinese black tea) have helped popularize black sesame.

Even the doughnut has been to Japan and back. When New York's popular Doughnut Plant opened branches in Tokyo, black sesame, along with "yuzu" and "shiso," were premier flavors. Owner Mark Isreal brought the black sesame flavor back to his original store in New York.

"I thought people would be freaked out by a black doughnut," he says, "but it sold."

In the U.S., white sesame seeds are more familiar than the black. Called "benne," sesame seeds were brought from Africa to the U.S. in the 17th century. Most of the sesame seeds produced in and imported to the U.S. are used for hamburger buns, bagels, bread and crackers. Very little has been used for confections or sweets, although the benne wafer, a cookie made with toasted white sesame seeds, brown sugar and pecans, is a Low Countryspecialty.

Sesame seeds are cultivated on a modest scale in the U.S. Other than what's grown in research nurseries, none of it is black, according to Nathan Smith, consultant to Paris, Texas-based sesame seed developer Sesaco Corp. Black sesame seeds are imported mostly from India.

"We're pretty far behind in terms of what sesame can be ... but we've seen the market for sesame grow significantly," Smith says, and the cultivation of black sesame seeds is being considered as demand increases.

At Mutual Trading Co. in Los Angeles, a wholesale purveyor to restaurants and Asian markets, sales of black sesame seeds doubled in 2005 from 2004, according to assistant vice president Atsuko Kanai. Sesame seeds are "up and coming," she says.

The newest addition to the dessert menu at Beacon in Culver City includes a black sesame creme brulee. Pastry chef Daniel Espindola says he was inspired by a Chinese sweet black sesame soup, called "zhi ma wu." The creme brulee is thick and creamy and dark.

A black sesame cream puff is a bestseller at Keiko Nojima's 10-month-old Pâtisserie Chantilly in Lomita, located in the South Bay of Los Angeles. Nojima didn't offer that flavor every day until customers demanded it. She was inspired by pastries in Tokyo, where she served an apprenticeship and where Pâtisserie flavored with black sesame is common. Nojima also makes black sesame tuiles and a white sesame blancmange with black sesame seeds and "kinako" sauce, made with soy flour. She says she is considering adding more black sesame pastries.

Black sesame seeds may have already found their way into your favorite dessert. "I believe that in the near future their use will become established," says El Bulli's Adria. "They'll be a normal, everyday product."

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